Books are Meant to be Read

booksWhen I was a child and my parents needed to punish me, they did not spank me, ground me, or make me do extra chores. They took away my books. Generally I get one of three reactions when I tell people this. The most common is a lack of understanding. “How can taking away books be considered a punishment?” The second is disapproval. “Taking books away from a child who wants to read is horrible.” The last (and least common) is a simple nod. People who grew up with their nose between pages get it. They understand not only why this punishment was effective, but also why (as my parents discovered) other forms of punishment just didn’t work. A spanking was a brief pain, quickly forgotten. Being grounded just meant more time to read. Extra chores were more bothersome but also passed quickly. Restricting access to books meant a life without dragons and magic, spaceships and distant worlds. Surely there could be no worse fate.

Fast forward to a few years ago. I am an adult and no one takes away my books. My collection had ballooned to include many hundreds of volumes and the percentage of them I hadn’t read was growing as quickly as the available shelf space was disappearing. Luckily my urge to obtain books ebbed around that time, but it wasn’t until more recently that I actually started purging large portions of my small library. What finally broke through was the realization of a few simple facts:

  • The physical book is unimportant. The story is what matters.
  • Most books are not rare. If you ever need another copy, it will not be hard to find.
  • Books are meant to be read. An unread book is nothing but paper and ink.

I’ve spoken with several people in the process of paring down their belongings and one of the most common hurdles is books. Getting rid of something that has brought joy into your life can often be difficult. But think of the joy your books could bring to others if they weren’t collecting dust on your shelves.

photo credit: Bookshelf (license)

Books are Meant to be Read

Extremes

extremesIt is often difficult to talk about minimalism with friends and family. Terms like “hippie” can get thrown around in an uncomplimentary fashion or, more often, an odd look followed by an awkward silence. To someone with only tertiary knowledge of minimalism, saying “I’m a minimalist.” can sound too much like “I’m in a cult.”

People have a tendency to shun, or even fear extremes; especially when those perceived extremes are opposite what society has taught them. A minimalist lifestyle flies in the face of social norms and this is why it seems extreme… but it only seems that way. In reality, minimalism is a step back from the severe debt and hoarding we have all been taught to accept as normal. It is a step toward the middle, not away from it.

To many of us, myself included, a minimalist lifestyle isn’t about bare, white walls and 100 items or less in a two-hundred square foot apartment with no TV. It is simply about having less clutter, less debt, less weight on our shoulders, and less time wasted. I have no intention of giving up modern conveniences or living out of a backpack for the next five years. My simpler lifestyle will not look like yours, but that’s alright. Being minimalist is also not about measuring yourself against anyone else. It is about making conscious and thoughtful decisions about the objects, relationships, and experiences that get included in our lives.

photo credit: Nick-K (Nikos Koutoulas) (cc)

Extremes

How much are you worth?

value

What is the value of your life? If you sold a day to another person, how much would they pay you in return?

Obviously you cannot put a price on a life. Even a single day is priceless. But every time we buy that new thing–the newest gadget we just “need” to own, that pair of shoes we’ll wear once, the kitchen appliance that (according to the label) will change the way we eat–we put a price tag on our time.

How much time do we spend in a year shopping for things we don’t really need and perhaps barely even want? How many minutes tick away as we diligently research reviews on the web and hunt for the best deal? How many hours have we spent window shopping? We often do not have a specific item in mind, just a strong want to fill an imagined void. Collecting more junk to fill a void is like drinking saltwater to quench your thirst. All it does is make the hole a little bigger.

The only currency we need to spend is time. Every day is worth 86,400 seconds that we can never be given back. Whatever void we might contain can only be filled by spending more of our time living, and less of it spending.

photo credit: epSos.de (cc)

How much are you worth?

Move it or lose it.

junk_drawersTell me if this sounds familiar: You moved a month or two ago. You packed all your belongings, rented a truck, asked friends for help and spent a day or more transplanting your belongings from one place to another. Now, months later, you still have more than a few packed boxes lying around your new abode. How many of them have labels like “Random” or “Misc.” or even “Junk Drawer?” If you haven’t needed anything in them for this long, why not save yourself the trouble of unpacking and take the boxes straight to a thrift store? I know it sounds drastic, maybe even a little crazy.

Do you know what else is crazy? Boxing up a junk drawer, letting it sit for months, then in a new drawer for years, only to repeat the process when the next move occurs. Why not break the cycle? Lose the junk.

Move it or lose it.

That sinking feeling.

I have never been a hoarder, but I definitely have the potential to be one.

Every item has a story. Every new thing has a purpose. Every piece of junk has a situation in which it could be useful, if only the correct scenario would appear. These are the things we tell ourselves to justify maintaining closets full of clothes we never wear, boxes stuffed with decorations we never look at (let alone display) and shelves lined with books we have never read or will never read again. “I might wear/use/read it one day.” It is a mantra we know well, and it has the potential to drown each of us in an ocean of unneeded crap.

Shutting the consumer floodgates is difficult. Advertisers have spent decades tapping into our instinct to acquire, to fatten ourselves up during plentiful times so we might survive the approaching winter. In this case, winter is not coming. We can empty our closets and take comfort in knowing that tomorrow the Sun will rise and the stores will open. The sandwich press you haven’t used in a year can be replaced. For now the only purpose it serves is to make your life a little more crowded. That “amazing” new “life changing” piece of technology the sales rep says you need will only be new and amazing until later this year when the next version comes out and the same person is telling you the “old” model is obsolete.

We know that sinking feeling all too well. The moment of joy accompanying a new acquisition is brief and quickly supplanted by a knot in the gut. In contrast, donating a box of dusty ornaments or a bag of clothing results in a strong and lasting feeling of relief. Consider the consequences before an impulse buy. Not just the consequences today, but tomorrow, next week, and next month as well. Will this thing improve your life in a long-lasting way or will it be a reminder of money and time better spent with friends. Make conscious choices, not snap decisions. Purging the daily purchase is not just about limiting acquisitions, it’s also about decreasing how much you want to acquire.

That sinking feeling.

The “Poorest” President

Jose_Musjica
Photo Credit: Agência Brasil

Jose Mujica of Uruguay is considered by many to be the “world’s poorest president.” He lives on a farm, gives away ninety percent of his $12,000 a month salary to those in need, and thinks other world leaders should follow his example. President Mujica was recently interviewed by the BBC and had this to say about what people think of him:

“They say I am the poor president. No, I am not a poor president. Poor people are those who always want more and more, those who never have enough of anything. Those are the poor, because they are in a never-ending cycle and they won’t ever have enough time in their lives. I choose this austere lifestyle. I choose not to have too many belongings so that I have time to live the way I want to live. […] When world leaders talk about sustainable development, what is that growth based on? It’s based on pushing people into mass consumption, but then you face an economic crisis like the one we see today.”

I could not have said it better myself.

The “Poorest” President

Can money buy happiness?

AsapSCIENCE asks this:

“We often hear it, but how true is the phrase ‘Money can’t buy happiness’? Is there a correlation between the two, and if so, what can we learn from it?”

You can watch the video to see what their answer is:

In my life I find it most accurate not to say money can buy my happiness, but having money makes it simpler to be happy. I am sure this is true for many people. Even if you are a generally lighthearted and happy person, debt and financial insecurity can create background stress and distraction. I know from experience the buzzing at the back of the brain that comes when financial issues arise. Especially when those issues cannot be resolved quickly.

Here are a few tips that I found especially helpful in my money management endeavors:

– If you don’t already have one, create a budget. Plan your spending months in advance, not days or weeks.

– Set aside money in your budget to have fun with (a “Play Budget”). For some people this might not be possible, but it can make a huge difference when trying to stick with your budget. It does not need to be a large amount.

– When you do spend from your “Play Budget,” buy experiences, not stuff.

– Set attainable financial goals and stick to a plan once you have one. There is no sense in creating impossible objectives. Not reaching the targets you shoot for can be more stressful and discouraging than just lowering the bar.

– If you have never budgeted before ask for help. My fiancé was and continues to be a valuable resource in this area.

Debt aside, the amount of money you need to be happy depends on your living situation and only you can decide what that number is.

Can money buy happiness?

It’s not a race.

Since starting my movement toward a more minimalist lifestyle, I have been stricken with the wish to quickly cut away all my unneeded possessions. On several occasions I have had to remind myself that minimalism is not a race with a finish line or a competition with a prize. There are no losers. The speed with which someone can adopt a simpler lifestyle and remove their excess material baggage depends on what kind of lifestyle they lived before. Some of us can easily shed a large percentage of our possessions in just a few days.  This is not the case for me.

In a slightly different situation, I might be very happy simply giving my items away to friends or donating them to charity. However, given the level of debt I have accumulated by purchasing so much junk, it would not be financially healthy to give things away. I need to sell as much as possible to recoup at least some of the cost of my old habits.

The act of paring down my collection is no longer emotionally difficult. I have gotten beyond the feeling of loss watching the stacks of miscellany slowly leave for different homes. Only the logistics of selling so many items remains painful. For the most part, dumping items locally is less profitable than moving them on the Internet, but online sales means time spent boxing, labeling, and shipping. Selling locally is more convenient, but the extra revenue generated by Internet buyers has me torn. For now I am trying a two-pronged approach. Locally sold items will be those that are difficult to ship or are not worth very much. Stuff posted online will be anything valuable enough to justify the time spent in shipping.

I have a few notes for anyone who wants to live more simply and is starting in a similar situation. These points might be obvious to some people, but they were not clear to me at first.

– Selling stuff, especially when trying to get the most out of your items, is difficult, even if you purchased all of it below market value. You need to find a buyer, work out a price you can both be happy with, and if the item(s) sell online, you need to ship them. All of this takes time and time is not always plentiful.

– Do not give up. I have shed material possessions for a couple of weeks and I have recently realized how large an iceberg I am trying to melt. It is easy to get discouraged when looking at others who have already transitioned into minimalism or had more freedom in the beginning to simply give stuff away. We can eventually get there too.

Be methodical. Make a plan and stick to it. Write down what you get rid of, how much you make, and what you are going to purge next.  Systematically paring down will help you stick to your goals and give you a stronger feeling of accomplishment.

The biggest enemy to our goal of living with less is the creeping desire to slip back under the blanket of excessive consumerism. The blanket may be warm, but the protection it provides is imagined, and all it can offer is a limit to how free we can be.

It’s not a race.

Collecting an addiction.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a collector. As a child I collected rocks, coins, stamps, paperweights, seashells, books, and various other bits of randomness. Now, all of those collections have fallen away save books, but I have started a few new ones along the way.

The urge to collect stems mostly from garage sale “hunting” with my mother. She would spend all week circling garage sale listings in the newspaper, trying to decide which three-line classified blurbs represented the best items. This was before the Internet reached mainstream status and long before websites like Craigslist made advertising a sale so easy. Friday mornings we were out the door before dawn to reach the most promising sales ahead of the mid-morning rush. She was mainly on the lookout for antiques, I simply enjoyed wading through giant piles of discarded belongings. These outings became my education into how to find a deal, how to haggle, how to spot an item likely worth more than its two dollar price tag. I loved every minute of it. It wasn’t long before I started picking up small things I found interesting and negotiating the price with the seller. I am certain they found it cute. An eight year old working a one dollar action figure down to fifty cents often resulted in raised eyebrows and a chuckle.

Haggling turned into my hobby. The stuff I acquired was nice, but the items themselves were secondary to the memories of how I attained them. Watching a seller crumble under the weight of my unwillingness to pay full price was my favorite thing in the world. However, even though the items were not the point, they became doorways to that fuzzy feeling. To get rid of the thing felt too much like erasing the memory, and so my collections grew.

Video games became my obsession after I entered college. I started buying them in bulk off Craigslist and Ebay as if making up for not having many at a younger age. I joined online forums dedicated to video game collecting and shared my finds with the community. Fellow collectors’ admiration became my new drug of choice, but their attention spans were as brief as my own and to keep up a high status meant always needing new “cool” or “rare” items to display. Not only did I buy the games, but also promotional items, store displays, limited editions, and more. Money ran through my fingers like water and, like many college students, I paid little attention to my steadily climbing debt.

Following college, the video game collecting only increased. I spent two years letting the collection grow until it filled more than half of the living room in my one bedroom apartment. It is only now, two moves and two storage units later, I have finally come to the tipping point.

The epiphany came when I realized I was an addict in a very literal sense of the word. Finding the next piece for my collection gave me a high, but I began to develop a tolerance. With each new game came a briefer moment of happiness. I had to buy stuff more quickly to feed the itch. Finally, after opening yet another package, this time there was no excitement, no happiness. This bit of plastic and paper was just another thing. My life was not improved by owning it, it was not useful. Just like that my life as a collector came crashing on my head with the full weight of all the debt and useless crap I had accumulated. Something needed to change and it needed to change quickly.

I began selling my collection shortly afterwards. To date I have made back over a thousand dollars, and I have sold only a small fraction of what I own.

To any collector out there who may read this, no matter what it is you collect: I implore you to take a long, hard look at the time and money you have exhausted amassing your pile of useless belongings and consider how you might have spent those resources. Keep in mind that “collecting is just hoarding with a prettier name.” We can make this change. We can move to a more fulfilling lifestyle with less stuff weighing us down, if only we remain determined. We can kick the collection habit.

Collecting an addiction.

What am I? What do I want to be?

These are the two questions I asked myself before beginning the lifestyle change this blog is meant to chronicle. I suppose I might also have asked: Who am I? Who do I want to be? However, this seems less accurate. I know who I am. I am happy with who I am. What I am is a completely other matter.

I am a collector. I am an overweight mid-late 20s college graduate. I am a gadget geek who always needs the next new piece of tech, whether or not it improves my life in any tangible way. “I am a weapon of massive consumption.” I am a stuff person. I own movies I will never watch again and movies I have never watched at all. I own games that sit unplayed and unopened books line my shelves. I have spent money with abandon and put myself in debt despite having a well paying job for someone my age.

What I want to be is someone with less stuff but more time, fewer possessions but more freedom, no debt and fewer worries. So, I turn to minimalism.

I have read that minimalism looks different for everyone because every person has a unique definition of what makes them happy. I am certain that it will look different for me. The “100 Thing Challenge” movement holds no interest for me, though I do respect the idea. Many minimalists have gone to extremes I cannot imagine reaching myself. However, as I progress along this path to less, perhaps I will find myself more capable than I currently imagine.

What am I? What do I want to be?